Pennsylvania’s approach to the expungement of criminal records

Expungement is a way for some criminal offenders to move on with their lives without the weight of having criminal records.

Expungement is the removal, destruction or sealing of a person's criminal record by court order under civil law. Usually after expungement of a conviction, a person is considered to be truthful in answering in the negative to a question about whether he or she has been convicted of a crime such as on an employment application.

Accordingly, a background check normally should not reveal a record that has been ordered expunged. However, courts, prosecutors and law enforcement may still be able to check expunged convictions under certain circumstances.

Having a criminal record is in essence a permanent impediment that a person carries for the rest of his or her life. It can impact the ability to get certain kinds of jobs and professional licenses, purchase firearms, vote and more, depending on the kind of crime and the jurisdiction in which he or she was convicted.

In addition, a criminal conviction carries stigma and shame for some people, which can cause psychological and personal trauma as well as impede the development of relationships. It also negatively impacts a person's personal and professional reputation.

With all of that said, the human desire to in essence forgive and forget a mistake and let the offender move into a normal life is reflected in expungement statutes across the country. Expungement laws are unique to each state and Pennsylvania's are fairly narrow, but provisions are made for some expungement of both adult and juvenile criminal records.

According to the Pennsylvania adult expungement statute, mandatory expungement of criminal history record information must occur in any of these situations:

  • Within 18 months after an arrest, no resulting criminal disposition is received or recorded in the criminal records repository; the court certifies to the repository that there is no related disposition or pending action; and the repository's director authorizes the expungement
  • A court order requires expungement of this kind of "nonconviction data" (the court must notify the prosecutor's office 10 days prior to such an expungement)
  • By court order in certain alcohol-related offenses a person committed between 18 to 21 years of age

A court has discretion to expunge records in the following cases:

  • The offender is at least 70 and has had no arrests or prosecutions for 10 years after release from confinement or supervision.
  • The offender has been dead for three years.
  • The offender was convicted of a summary offense (relatively minor nonviolent crime) and has had no arrests or prosecutions for five years after the conviction.

Pennsylvania court rule also provides for automatic expungement of records when a defendant successfully completes an accelerated rehabilitative disposition or ARD program, unless the prosecutor objects and presents strong evidence supporting the objection and the judge agrees after a hearing. (ARD is a rehabilitative intervention program for some first offenders of nonviolent crimes that does not result in a criminal conviction.)

There are specific prohibitions against allowing expungement of certain violent sex crimes against victims under 18.

Detailed provisions for juvenile record expungements are also provided in Pennsylvania statute.

Pennsylvania expungement laws are complex and require specific procedures and filings so consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney about the possibility of expungement in a particular case is a smart idea. Legal counsel can also prepare legal documents, make filings, advocate for the expungement and follow up on any expungement order.

The criminal defense attorneys at Rubin, Glickman, Steinberg and Gifford, P.C., with offices in Colmar and Newtown, Pennsylvania, represent offenders and arrestees in expungement matters and defend against criminal charges in a wide variety of crimes.